Two Concerts at Davies

The SF Symphony is trying out a new plan that lets us pay a lump sum at the beginning of the month and then get last-minute tickets for most concerts that haven’t sold out. Dave and I were on the list to be offered it, probably because we have been such heavy and regular users of their annual discounted ticket offer. We figured that if we used the offer to attend at least three concerts a month, we’d break even, and there were easily at least three concerts a month we’d like to see (heck, there are easily twice that many), so we signed up. It does eat up most of our entertainment budget for the month, but it’s also a great deal for us. So we’ve been going to a lot of concerts the last month and a half.

A Friday evening a couple weeks ago was Herbert Blomstedt conducting Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem. This is a great piece and a favorite of both Dave’s and mine (I sang the bass part twice way back in my singing days, and understudied the baritone solos one of those times, so its a work I got to know pretty closely). It was a rather lackluster performance, however — not bad, exactly, but it wasn’t up to the usual high standards of the SF Symphony so it was disappointing. The orchestra’s playing was often a bit ragged; worse, Blomstedt’s tempos were tepid, relentlessly moderate even in the sections of the requiem that should be spirited and joyous.

I did like the baritone soloist, Christian Gerhaher, a lot, partly because of his attention to the words. I really love the texts Brahms chose for this work, and Mr. Gerhaher’s diction was very crisp and clear, though he does sing with a Bavarian accent that took me a few phrases to get used to; however, he comes by it naturally as a native of Munich.

The strongest part of the performance was the chorus itself, clearly well prepared by chorus director Ragnar Bohlin. In fact, the highlight of the entire concert for me was the unaccompanied motet (Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen) they sang before the intermission; the piece was new to me and the performance was full of spirit and emotion.

A few days later on Sunday evening we heard pianist András Schiff playing four late piano sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Schubert. This was the second of three concerts on this theme; we heard the first of them last week, but I was in a very dark mood and couldn’t concentrate much on the music. I was in better spirits this week and enjoyed the concert. I know very little about piano music, though, and all four sonatas were new to me, so I don’t have much to say about them.

Mr. Schiff is an amazing pianist. So much careful and intelligent attention to clarity and nuance, and all in the service of making transparent the structure of the pieces! Everything clean and clear as crystal. Not a lot of power and drive, though, even in the Beethoven, which I have to imagine must usually be played more forcefully. But everything was beautifully and thoughtfully shaped. Even though I was hearing the pieces for the first time, and even though I’m not really all that deeply musical, I was able to follow quite a bit of their structure, something that would ordinarily take me two or three listenings just to start to get.

Interesting, too, to hear him so soon after hearing Ms. Grimaud the week before, one very classical and finely polished in style and the other very romantic and energetic, both excellent but in very different ways.

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